L’Atelier Robuchon: An impressive homage to a world-class cooking talent

24 Jan 2024 | |By Rob Crossan

The relaunched dining room offers perhaps the most unpretentiously enjoyable high-dining experience in the capital

As a half-Scot, I’ve long been impressed by how the nation of my forefathers has endlessly found ways to adapt calorific dishes and morph them from the merely gout-encouraging to the downright coronary-inducing. Lasagne pies, as well as macaroni cheese pies, are easy to find in bakers from Dumfries to Dornoch. But, in Greenock last week, I encountered my very first kebab meat pie. If you’re tempted to seek one out for yourself, they are sold in the kiosk underneath the main stand at Cappielow Park, Greenock Morton FC’s time-warp ground (‘stadium’ would be a gross exaggeration, like calling Bromley a ‘city’).

I can report that the combination of hot pastry and curlicues of kebab meat are pungently well matched; particularly when washed down with a polystyrene cup of Bovril, which tasted like the essence of a butcher’s apron and a mountain of salt.

What has all this got to do with the latest ‘tribute’ restaurant to Joël Robuchon, the multi-garlanded Michelin-starred chef who died five years ago? Well, the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland didn’t die with the Williamite Wars. The esprit de corps is alive and well in ways that extend far beyond a mutual loathing of the English. What the Scots and French still have in common is a rigidly unapologetic attitude towards their own cuisine.

While the English tug their forelocks while shuffling their feet and saying sorry for everything from powdered eggs to turkey twizzlers, the French and Scots will, always, make direct eye contact while defending their commitment to the sybaritic pleasure that can be derived from their meals. In this instance, there is no difference between cassoulet from Toulouse or a bridie from Forfar. What matters is the will of self-identity; quite rightly something that, in the culinary sphere at least, is impervious to self-doubt.

The late Robuchon was perhaps the greatest acolyte to the notions of fusing simplicity and detail in his cuisine. A self-confessed ‘steak and pomme frites’ guy, his dedication to full-fat ingredients and pugilistic flavours is, I’m delighted to report, still intact, despite his passing. The way his ‘legacy’ restaurants have opened and shut in London over the last few years, however, is positively Byzantine.

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon used to be located in Covent Garden, while his Comptoir restaurant was in Mayfair. L’Atelier closed down in 2019. Comptoir shuttered last year. Now L’Atelier has reopened. In Comptoir’s old site.

The décor inside L’Atelier, on Clarges Street, one of the more malevolent looking Mayfair thoroughfares, hasn’t changed much since it was called Comptoir. That means acres of marble, plants galore, and a very long bar with ox-blood red stools that nobody seems to sit on as the banquettes are far more appealing.

Expecting the clientele to be a neo-mannerist melange of pulchritudinous thighs, cleavage and jewellery, I was surprised to find a relatively low-key crowd. Many of the small groups of diners seemed to be dominated by French women holding forth to appropriately cowed and awed Englishmen.

L’Atelier Robuchon reaches for informal brasserie while serving food of far higher stature. It pulls it off rather well. When I said Robuchon’s attitude towards food was as unrepentant as that of a Glaswegian chippie proprietor, I wasn’t fooling. This is manifested in a menu that isn’t just scattered, but positively overflowing with foie gras.

A full third of the starters and mains contain the end product of what is essentially a duck tracheotomy. And while the arguments for and against the continued availability of foie gras could fill up the rest of this review, I’ll resist comment other than to offer the following; food is cultural in every sense.

What is considered cruel in one country is considered a pivotal totem of freedom in another. If you don’t agree with the process that goes into the making of foie gras then, like taking long-haul flights or wearing leather jackets, simply don’t do it. Upon such free volition to make choices, democracies are built.

I had the pigeon, a bulging, miniature haggis-esque parcel plumped to bursting with bacon, foie gras and cabbage. That was preceded by pig’s trotters on toast with mustard. All were imbued with soil, earth, and those bosky notes of unrepentantly big flavours.

Everything speaks to the legacy of what Robuchon wanted to give his guests: the fat, guts, sinew and love of the homespun; the provincial kitchen-granny who flew to planet Haute but remembered to take all her childhood memories of the larder along for the ride.

Portions are small and that’s as they should be. Each dish, beautifully conceived and precisely executed, is also absurdly rich. The plates look small but, trust me, you’ll be grateful for the kitchen’s restraint.

Then, of course, there’s the famous Robuchon mash. Perhaps the secret behind this mash, revered as the world’s very greatest interpretation of the dish, is that nobody before Joël ever dared put this much butter into it. Either way, it’s as soft and reassuring as Alan Bennett’s tie knot, or the last stanza of If I Could Tell You.

Robuchon has gone to the great sous vide immersion circulator in the sky. Yet, such is his presence within these dishes that I suspect for some of the evening that the great chef could actually be a modern-day Hermione (Shakespeare’s version, not Rowling’s); about to emerge from one of the wall cavities to tell the sommelier that the wine glasses need polishing.

OK, The Winter’s Tale reference might not be entirely accurate. Hermione was a statue that came to life. There’s no statue of Joël in L’Atelier. Then again, there doesn’t really need to be. The grand master lives on through a menu of spectacular dishes.

And, as the man himself would no doubt have said in a manner as direct and vexatious as any Scot; ‘If you don’t like it, then don’t come here.’

Visit robuchonlondon.co.uk

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